Tuesday night in Logan, Utah, two of the best guards in college basketball opened the season by engaging in an entertaining duel in front of a sold out crowd at Smith Spectrum.
Sam Merrill has an established himself on the national stage. As a junior, the Utah State sharpshooter earned Mountain West Player of the Year honors, All-American honors from multiple outlets and All-Mountain West honors for the second straight year. He led USU to 28 wins, the Mountain West regulars-season and tournament titles and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Harald Frey put together one of the best second halves of last season as any player in the Big Sky Conference. The former league Freshman of the Year had five 30-point games entering his senior season and a pair of All-Big Sky nods on his resume. But the native of Oslo, Norway had largely played in the shadow of Tyler Hall, the Big Sky’s career scoring leader, for most of his Montana State career.
Utah State entered Tuesday’s game with a No. 16 national ranking and Merrill is already one of the favorites for the Wooden Award. Montana State entered Danny Sprinkle’s first game as the Bobcats’ head coach with just five players who had ever played in a Division I game.
Yet Frey out-dueled Merrill, putting the rest of the Big Sky and the rest of the West on notice that he is in fact one of the premier guards in college basketball. The southpaw point guard poured in a career-high 34 points, showing his outstanding shooting range while burying six 3-pointers. He also got to the rim at will, finishing in traffic and earning eight free throw attempts. He sank all eight.
Frey’s layup with five minutes, 25 seconds to go gave Montana State an unlikely 66-64 advantage. But MSU did not score again for nearly four minutes, stalling out in an upset bid that would’ve given the Bobcats their first victory against a ranked team since they joined the Big Sky in 1963.
Instead, Merrill scored 28 points, including hitting 17-of-18 free throws, former Montana Grizzly Alphonso Anderson hit eight crunch time free throws and the host Aggies survived with for an 81-73 victory in front of a capacity crowd.
Utah State has won more than 300 home games over the last 20 years and has won more than 82 percent of its home games since the Smith Spectrum opened in 1970.
“I thought we came out and competed our butts off,” Frey said. “We competed for the whole 40 minutes.”
Montana State’s newfound defensive initiative helped limit Merrill’s offensive flow all night. The Bountiful, Utah native managed to get to the free throw line earl and often. But MSU allowed one of college basketball’s best shooters attempt just two 3-pointers.
The Aggies shot just 37.7 percent from the field, including 6-of-18 from beyond the arc. But 35 made free throws in 45 attempts compared to MSU’s 16-of-26 effort from the charity stripe proved to be a key factor.
Anderson, a Garfield High (Seattle) product who began his career at Montana, hit all eight of his free throws, including two to break a 66-66 tie. He hit two more to push the lead to 74-66 with 1:44 left before taking a seat with 13 points and six rebounds.
Frey did not score after his go-ahead layup with 5:25 left. His fifth and final assist to freshman Finn Fleute led to a 3-point play that cut the lead to 74-71 with 56 seconds left.
But Brock Miller drained a 3-poitner 27 seconds later and Merrill hit four straight free throws to sew up the Utah State victory.
Montana State shot 42.1 percent from the floor, including 9-of-19 from beyond the arc. Big man Julian Belo had a solid Division I debut, scoring 12 points and grabbing nine rebounds in 24 minutes of action. Mychael Paulo scored 10 points and hit a pair of 3-pointers in his first game as a Bobcat. Justin Bean scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for Utah State.
Montana State returns to action Saturday in Bozeman against Rocky Mountain College.